Toasting the Toolmaster
Mastercam helped Bob Taylor (Taylor Guitars) carve out his future, so when Mark’s daughter got married, Bob helped her celebrate hers.
During Taylor’s factory tours, people often ask which big-name artists were the “early adopters” who helped lift the company from relative obscurity to the radar of public recognition. A handful of names are usually trotted out — Neil Young, John Denver, Prince, Alabama’s Jeff Cook, and Leo Kottke, to name a few — but if you ask Bob Taylor, he’ll cite a different kind of key player, one whose name is far from any venue marquee, yet whose impact on Taylor’s success is greater than all of the above names put together. His name is Mark Summers, and he’s the co-founder and president of CNC Software, Inc., whose flagship product, Mastercam, enabled Bob to revolutionize the way that Taylor guitars are made.
It was 1989 when Bob took the plunge, purchasing his first CNC mill and Mastercam software after seeing how his friend, fellow luthier Tom Anderson, had embraced CNC technology to make his electric guitars. At the time, Taylor was making about seven guitars a day. Between the CNC mill and the software, the investment was more than $100,000.
Bob vividly remembers learning to use the Mastercam software on his IBM AT computer. “I would work all day, then sit in my little office at night, put on the Nanci Griffith album Storms, and load Mastercam,” he says. “That’s the only album I played — it was Nanci, Bob, and Mastercam — I could totally zone away. I must’ve listened to that album 150 times learning to use the program.
“It wasn’t easy but it wasn’t hard,” Bob recalls. “What was great was that it made sense. It had the best user interface; the menu structure meant something, as opposed to other CAD programs where you’d have to learn what every word meant. The next thing you know, just through figuring it out, I’d drawn a guitar bridge like I’d drawn on plans, except, when I said six inches, it was six inches, not six inches and the width of a pencil lead. When you’re making a guitar and you’re trying to be accurate, lines have weight because they have dimension.”
Once Bob had a drawing of his bridge, Mastercam allowed him to use the dimensions to generate the tool paths for cutting and shaping it from wood.
“It would memorize the shape of my bridge by zooming around the line I drew,” he explains. “So, now it has a tool path, and then another screen comes up, and it asks you all these things that it needs to know: What’s the diameter of your cutter? How fast do you want to spin the spindle? Which direction, clockwise or counter-clockwise? Which side of the line do you want to cut on? And then you click it and it spits out G-code that the machine can read. I’d go back and forth between my office and the machine at night and figure it out. And then I’d push the button on the machine, and it would start feeding and cutting, and when it was done I’d pick the thing up and I’m like, whoa, I just cut this piece of wood into the shape of a bridge on this machine! I can do this. It’s like learning the first three chords on your guitar; it doesn’t ever get more fun than that.”
Bob says that Mastercam marked the first time as a guitar craftsman that he was able to get the precise shapes and slots he really wanted.
“The cool thing was, when I was done with that, I could say to one of our employees, ‘Hey, push this button for the rest of the afternoon, and put this wood on, and take this wood off and make bridges.’ Pretty soon they’re learning to run the machine and they’re setting it up and changing the tools, figuring out how the programs work. Meanwhile, I’m using Mastercam to draw a fingerboard and a guitar body. So, our guitars got more accurate, and more people in the shop could make more accurate parts.”
Many Taylor innovations, such as the NT neck®, would never have been possible without the precision and consistency of Mastercam software. The ever-evolving marriage of quality and efficiency that Mastercam has made possible is now deeply entrenched in much of Taylor’s everyday production process. Taylor currently operates 26 CNC mills in its main factory complex in El Cajon, California, and will soon be adding its 16th computer mill to its plant in Tecate, Mexico.
“Without Mastercam, Taylor wouldn’t look like we do at all,” Bob reflects. “You have to stop and appreciate someone like Mark, who had his dream, which nested with mine, and allowed me to grow Taylor.”
And yes, Mark plays guitar. He owns three Taylors: an 814ce, a Jewel signature model, and a slot-head 30th Anniversary Grand Concert XXX-RS.
“I’ve been playing for about 35 years, but I always tell people three months because that’s about how good I am,” he quips.
Despite the fact that Mark and Bob have known each other professionally for years and have talked at trade shows, Mark hadn’t actually visited the Taylor factory until this past March. He says he was surprised to discover how big Taylor’s operation truly was.
“I had no idea it was so involved. It seemed very well organized and well run.”
Mark made the trip with Meghan, who came with a special agenda: She wanted to spec out a Build to Order guitar as a wedding gift for her fiancé Brendan, who has played guitar most of his life but had never owned his own.
“I wanted to do something really special, and a guitar was the best thing that came into my mind,” she says.
Bob gave Mark and Meghan a personal tour, showing them the many aspects of production at Taylor that involve Mastercam programming, after which Bob and Taylor’s Joe Bina helped Meghan design the guitar, starting with wood selection. When Meghan learned that koa was an option, she got excited, since she and Brendan had lived in Hawaii for three years while attending school, she for her graduate degree in management, he for his bachelor’s in psychology.
“Our relationship really fell into place in Hawaii,” she shares. “And a lot of our friends were musicians, so whenever we had parties it would be a circle of people playing guitar or ukulele and people singing. We later bought a dog together, a yellow lab we named Koa, which was a big step. So, for the guitar, koa was perfect.”
Meghan selected a spectacular master grade set, with a koa top as well. She opted for a GS body with a Florentine cutaway, mother-of-pearl tropical vine fretboard inlay, rosewood binding, black and white purfling, an abalone rosette, and Gotoh tuners.
Bob wanted to do something extra special in honor of the occasion, so he asked Taylor’s marketing group to coordinate with production to shoot some photos of the guitar in various stages of being built. The photos were later incorporated into a printed iBook that would accompany the guitar as a special memento for Meghan and Brendan. The finished guitar and iBook were shipped in advance of their wedding in June.
“When I first got the guitar and opened it up, the wood was absolutely spectacular,” Meghan says. “It took my breath away.”
“I gave him the book first because I knew if I handed him this big guitar case it would be pretty obvious,” she says. “At first he was really confused, then he started flipping through the pictures a little bit, and he kept looking up at me going, ‘I’m not really sure what’s going on here, but I think I’m about to get excited,’ and then finally says, “Is this mine?!’ He was just shaking. And I’m through the moon, smiling. And I was like, ‘You know what, I forgot something outside.’ In the meantime, my dad had put the guitar there for me, so I brought it in. Brendan was shaking as he opened up the case, and then he just stared in amazement, going, ‘I don’t even know what to say.’ It was a really, really special moment for us.”
Article by Jim Kirlin, Taylor Guitars. Wood & Steel Magazine. Volume 65 Fall 2010